Heron by the Miyagawa
Takayama is a mountain town, and the river that runs through it, the Miyagawa, is a clear mountain one. Trout and carp flourish here, ducks bob on the water, and we also saw a heron waiting patiently for the chance to catch a fish, no doubt. The heron, because of its habit of staying motionless like this, is regarded as a symbol of Buddhist meditation, so how special and appropriate it was to see one so clearly in what was one of my favourite Japanese places.
Children feeding the fish and ducks
As well as being a pleasant place to walk at any time of day, the river bank is the location for one of Takayama’s famous morning markets. After breakfast at our hotel (which offered a choice of Japanese or Western style – we copped out and opted for Western, having had very traditional Japanese ones the previous two mornings in Kyoto) we joined Andrew and some others from the group for a visit to the market.
Stallholder at the market
There are in fact two markets held every morning in Takayama – the one we went is held on the banks of the Miyagawa in the old town. I have seen this reviewed as a ‘tourist trap’ but I have to disagree. Yes, tourists come, but it was also clear to me that locals were here too, shopping for (mostly) fruit and vegetables and enjoying a gossip with friends whom they met along the way. I loved our time here!
I always enjoy visiting a good colourful market anywhere I travel, as it is usually a great place to take photos and mix with the local people. This one was especially enjoyable because of the Japanese willingness to be photographed. I took so many photos of characterful faces, interesting food products and local crafts – several that I took here were among the best of the whole trip, I felt.
Of course, being a market, it’s also good place to shop! I bought some delicious sesame crunch sweets at one stall which modestly advertised its wares as being nothing much to look at but worth tasting with a sign that read:
‘Also the wife, the husband and confectionery which are NOT chosen by appearance.’
Sign at a sweet stall
This is also a great place for snacking. Lots of the stalls sell little treats such as soy bean dumplings and sweets of all kinds. There’s a tea stall if you need warming up on what might be a chilly morning (remember, this is a mountain town) and the local Hida apples are huge and justifiably famous for their flavour.
A bite to eat
The morning market is a long-held tradition here, and there has been one on this spot for sixty years, although records show that the morning market was originally held close to the Takayama Betsuin Shourenji temple and started in the Edo Period. At its peak it is said to have had over 300 stalls but today it is usually between 50 and 70 – still plenty to keep any visitor interested.
After spending some time in the market Chris and I met up again with some of our group and Andrew proposed a visit to a nearby museum, dedicated to Takayama’s Festival Floats.
Matsuri Yatai Kaikan
Takayama is famous throughout Japan for its two annual festivals, in the spring and autumn, known as matsuri – the first celebrating the planting season, and the second the harvest. Unfortunately we missed the harvest matsuri by just a day (accounting in part for the large crowds milling around the old town on the day of our arrival) but at least we were able to get a good sense of what is involved by visiting this excellent museum.
Main exhibit hall, Matsuri Yatai Kaikan
The focal point of both festivals is a parade of richly decorated floats known as yatai, 23 in total (12 for the spring festival, 11 for the autumn), some of which are 500 years old. Each is the responsibility, and pride, of one of the city’s communities. Originally they would have been carried on many shoulders, but today they have wheels. Nevertheless, manoeuvring these tall, unwieldy floats through Takayama’s narrow streets must be quite a challenge. On the first evening of the festival, they are illuminated with hundreds of paper lanterns and are hauled through the town by ropes, accompanied by wailing flutes and thundering drums. For the remainder of the festival they stand proudly at their allotted spot, attended by costumed locals.
For the rest of the year the yatai are kept hidden away, each in its own tall storehouse in the old town, and we saw several of these while walking around today. They are very tall, narrow and plain, and painted white in contrast to the dark wood of the old houses that surround them. Only during the four days of festival (two in the spring, two in the autumn) are the yatai wheeled out to be paraded around the town and exhibited in all their glory. If the festival is hit by bad weather they will remain in these storehouses instead, but with the large doors flung open so all can see them. At any other time visitors must be content with examining the photo that is displayed outside alongside some information about the float within.
Yatai storehouse on the banks of the Miyagawa
But a few yatai are exhibited here in the Yatai Kaikan, on a rotating basis. The museum consists mainly of a single large hall, big enough to take these impressive constructions. They are displayed with mannequins modelling the various historical costumes worn in the parades etc., and a walkway winds round the central area, ascending gently, so that by the time you are on the fourth side you are almost level with the top of the floats. Which ones you will see depends on the cycle of rotation, but I believe the oldest one, which still has the old yokes (rather than wheels) and is no longer used, remains here all the time. All are beautifully carved, painted and lacquered. Many carry karakuri ningyo, mechanical dolls that can move and dance – more about those later in this entry.
A karakuri ningyo on a float
A small room off this walkway is marked as a study room; I was glad I bothered to check this out as it shows an interesting ten minute video on a loop that gives a good idea of how the floats look in action at the festivals. If ever I get to come back to Takayama I will try very hard to ensure my visit coincides with one of these.
Sakurayama Nikko Kan
Model of Toshugo at Sakurayama Nikko Kan
The admission fee to the Yatai Kaikan museum also includes the smaller one next door, Sakurayama-Nikko-kan, which holds a model of a World Heritage Site, the Toshogu Shrine in Nikko. It may seem odd (well, it did to me!) that one city should devote a museum to the wonders of another fairly distant city, but the reason became clear later when I read that this exhibit is both demonstration of, and tribute to, the wood-working skills of Takayama's craftsmen, who are famed throughout Japan for their carpentry. These 28 models of temple buildings contain 100,000 individual miniature pieces and took 33 sculptors 15 years to complete. What an achievement!
As you stroll around and peer at the 1/10 scale models the light in the hall will dim and you get to see how Toshogu looks by night as well as by day. As we were to visit Nikko later in our trip we didn’t spend as long here as we might otherwise have done, but the detail on the carvings is exquisite and you could be here for an hour or more and still be marvelling at the workmanship.
Model of the temple buildings by day ...
... and by night
Once we had seen all we wanted to here, we said goodbye to the rest of the group, who were going to the Hida Folk Museum. I would have liked to have seen this too, but we had decided it was more of a priority for us to see more of this lovely small city. So we set off to explore further by ourselves, and our next destination was a nearby shrine.
This Shinto shrine is in a lovely setting on the northern edge of the town, just beyond the Yatai Kaikan. It is the focal point for Takayama’s autumn festival. There are thousands of these Hachiman Shrines in Japan; they are dedicated to Hachiman, the kami (god or spirit) of war, who used to be popular among the leading military clans of the past. The origins of this particular shrine date back to the time of the Emperor Nintoku (313-399) who sent Prince Takefurukuma-no-mikoto to subjugate the monster Sukuna, a beast with two heads, four arms and four legs. Before undertaking this task, the warrior enshrined his father, the Emperor Ohjin, as the deity of this shrine and prayed for the success of his mission.
The shrine was enlarged in 1683 and established as the official protective shrine of the town. It has a pair of stone Komainu or ‘lion dogs’ guarding the entrance to the inner shrine, a large purification trough with dragons’ head fountains, a pool with large carp and a number of smaller buildings dotted around the grounds either side of the shrine. Among these (on the left as you face the main shrine) is an auxiliary shrine, an Inari Shrine, dedicated to the kami of the harvest and of industry. This shrine is guarded by a pair of foxes, regarded as the messengers of this god.
Inari Shrine, and prayers for good fortune
Fox guarding the Inari Shrine
While we were here we were fortunate to witness a local celebration. On arrival we found the steps up to the shrine blocked by a family posing for formal photos. We stopped to see what was happening and a passing guide escorting another couple around (local and with excellent English) kindly stopped to explain to us that it is traditional here in Takayama to bring your new-born baby to this shrine to be blessed around the 40th day after the birth. This first visit to a shrine is known as Hatsu Miyamairi or more commonly Omiyamairi. In the past, this would be scheduled very precisely, and according to the baby’s gender, e.g. 31 days old for a baby boy and 32 days for a baby girl. The exact timing depends on the region – here in Takayama our informant indicated that 40 days is traditional. But nowadays it has become a common practice for babies (regardless of gender) to have their Omiyamairi at any time between 30 to 100 days after their birth. Many parents choose to go after their baby’s first month health check, and it may also depend on the availability of a priest and of family members.
Family group at Sakurayama Hachimangu
A baby's blessing
Traditionally, the mother and grandmother wear formal kimono, and their babies will be adorned in colourful robes or wraps. But the family we saw were in smart Western-style clothing. The purpose of the Omiyamairi is to show gratitude to the gods for the safe delivery and ask the local deity of the shrine to bless the baby, purify him/her and to accept the baby as part of the local worshipping community. The baby is introduced to the local deity by calling out his/her name and birth information, and the god is asked to purify, protect and bless the baby with happiness and health. No photos can be taken during the ceremony itself, but afterwards of course the proud new parents like to pose before the shrine with their offspring and other relatives, just as we saw here. To me it was very reminiscent of wedding photography, with the photographer arranging different combinations of the party in turn – the parents and baby, all the women, the whole group and so on. It was a lovely thing to witness and added to our appreciation of the shrine and its pretty setting.
Torii gate at Sakuramaya Hachimangu
After taking our own photos and exploring the various buildings here we were in need of refreshment. As we strolled south from the shrine we kept our eyes open for somewhere we might find something to tempt us, and when we spotted a café in a traditional old building on Shimo-Ninomachi advertising cappuccinos, we knew we had found our place!
Exterior of the café
Stepping inside we found ourselves in a fascinating old building with antiques and knickknacks around the walls and a few large wooden tables. We sat at one end of one of these and were handed menus by the friendly lady who was serving but explained we would just like coffees – a cappuccino for Chris and a mocha for me. She passed our order to the man making the drinks and we waited a while, thinking that he seemed to be taking extra care over them. When Chris’s, the first to arrive, was brought we saw why – an image of two little bears carefully ‘drawn’ in the foam. My mocha was equally decorative but very different, with lovely feathering. A Canadian guy sitting at the same table heard our exclamations and came over to look. When he saw the designs he asked permission to take a photo (of course we were already snapping away!) and explained that a friend of his, a professional photographer, was working on a book of ‘coffee art’ and would be jealous that he had come across such great examples! Oh, and fortunately the coffee was as good as it looked, and we thoroughly enjoyed our drinks.
The 'artist' at work
Inside the café, with our Canadian companion
Once we had finished our coffee and our chat, we were ready to carry on sightseeing.
Shishi-Kaikan: the Lion Dance Ceremony Exhibition Hall
Sign in the Shishi-Kaikan
As the name suggests, the Lion Dance Ceremony Exhibition Hall has a collection of artefacts related to the famous lion dance performed at Japanese festivals. There are over 200 lion masks, as well as Edo-Period screens, ceramics, scrolls, coins, samurai armour, and swords. But although interesting, it was not these that had drawn us here, but the regular (every half hour) 15 minute demonstrations of the karakuri (automated dolls) which decorate many of the floats in Takayama's spring and autumn festivals.
We arrived just as one of these demonstrations was starting and were hurried inside to take our seats so we didn’t miss anything. Several karakuri ningyo, to give them their full name, were put through their paces as a woman gave explanations, a small part of which she translated into English (but enough only to give us a fairly vague idea of what was happening and how).
These karakuri ningyo are often described as the ancestors of Japanese robot technology. But their main purpose was not to show off technological possibilities but to conceal them and to create a sense of wonder and magic. The word karakuri means a ‘mechanical device to tease, trick, or take a person by surprise’. The aim in creating them was that the doll should be as lifelike as possible and not look like the machine it was.
There are several types of karakuri. Most of those demonstrated here are dashi karakuri, which is the name given to those used on festival floats to re-enact scenes from plays, usually myths and legends. But we also saw a typical zashiki karakuri – the type of karakuri developed for amusement at home, a luxury item in the Edo period in Japan. One of the most popular of these, and the type that we saw, was the tea-serving doll. Like most of the dashi karakuri, it works by clockwork. When a cup is placed in its hands the robot moves forwards; when the cup is lifted it stops; and when the cup is again placed in its hands it turns and goes back where it started. You can imagine what a novelty that would have been in a rich Edo household – and indeed what a novelty it seemed to us! We also saw one that could write which went down especially well with the children in the audience, one of whom was given the finished paper.
If I’ve got you intrigued by these devices, there’s an excellent website about them, Karakuri Info, which is worth digging around in. Once we’d watched the demonstration we walked around the rest of the exhibits. There was no restriction on photography so as well as taking some photos of the karakuri and lion masks I was also able to make a short video of a couple of the former in action during the demonstration.
By now it was lunch time and we retraced our steps towards a restaurant we had spotted earlier. Rakuda proved to be a great lunch stop. We loved the quirky decor which had rather a kitsch feel, with old 1970s posters and an odd assortment of objects displayed (which continued into the toilet, by the way – do check it out if you come here!) The music played was mostly from the same era, so it’s evidently a passion of the owners. The service was friendly and there was a helpful English-language menu.
I had a really tasty sandwich - thick slices of toast with an omelette filling, loads of vegetables (courgette, tomatoes, edame beans, aubergine etc.) and salad in a delicious dressing. Chris had the white pizza which had a very thin base (more like a quesadilla) but a delicious topping of two types of cheese with walnuts. Our drinks were equally as good – mine a home-made ginger ale and Chris's a soda with fresh fruits. And the prices were low - my huge sandwich was just 600¥ and our total bill not much over 2,000¥. What’s not to like?!!
Rakuda exterior, and soda with fresh fruit
Refreshed and very happy with our lunch break we headed to our next sight.
During the Edo period Takayama was largely a merchant, rather than a samurai, town, and its architecture reflects that fact. The streets of the old town are lined with houses of a style that accommodated both family and business life, and on Ninomachi in the northern part of the town are two of the finest examples, side by side, and both open to the public. The northernmost is Yoshijima-ke, built in 1907 to be both home and factory for the Yoshijima family, well-to-do brewers of sake. It is considered one of finest examples of rural Japanese buildings, and I absolutely loved it! The light inside was beautiful, and the contrast of the heavy dark beams, the lighter lacquered wood used for door frames, pillars etc., and the translucent paper screens was captivating – I couldn’t stop taking photos!
The house has two floors and two inner gardens which some of the rooms overlook. We paid 500¥ for admission and were given a small information leaflet (available in English). We were then free to wander at will, having of course removed our shoes before stepping on to the tatami matting that covers the floor of all the more formal rooms. There is minimal decoration, apart from some beautiful screens, carved wood panels and a few paintings by Japanese artist Shinoda Toko. The beauty is all in the arrangement of the spaces and the contrast of light and dark.
If you’re interested there’s a plan of the house on this website about Oriental architecture, and also lots of photos, which together give a really comprehensive feel for this lovely building.
The sign outside had a lovely quotation which I think could apply to any old and well-loved home:
‘The completion of the house was only the beginning of its beautiful history. The activity inside the house brought it to life and added to the finishing touches. I think that this kind of beauty could only be created and ensue because of the loving hearts that supported it and lived in it. This struck when gazing through the high window on a moonlit night as white clouds drifted by.’
Teiji Ito (architectural historian)
After spending some time here, we moved to the house next door.
Daidokoro with irori, Kusakabe mingei-kan
This house belonged to the Kusakabe family, successful Takayama merchants who thrived in the late Edo and early Meiji periods. It was built in 1879 to replace an earlier home and business lost in a fire. It is generally more solid feeling than the neighbouring Yoshijima house, with darker wood. I have seen this described as the more masculine house and Yoshijima as more feminine, which sort of makes sense when you see them.
Like Yoshijima, this is a two storey structure. Its foot-square cypress timbers are as perfectly fitted as cabinet work, as might be expected from builders of this Hida region (famous throughout the country for their skills in woodwork and carpentry). Its most noticeable feature is perhaps the fireplace – a sunken hearth made of iron known as an irori and above it a huge adjustable hook for hanging a pot or kettle, known as a jizai-kagi. This is the heart of the daidokoro or family room, a large room but one which is even taller than it is wide.
Unlike Yoshijima, the Kusakabe house is furnished with some antiques – dark wood cabinets, low tables, a few ornaments. And in its storerooms (on the upper floor and to the rear of the building) are various exhibits of household items (cabinets, pots etc) that would have been traded by this merchant family.
An inner garden
Silk kimono on display
As with the Yoshijima, there’s a plan of the house on the Oriental architecture website, and again lots of photos. The official website also has some good photos and an interesting detailed history of the house.
Admission here too was 500¥. This included a cup of green tea and rice cake which was served in the rear courtyard between house and warehouse.
As we left I spotted a tatami mat workshop on the opposite side of the road. I had already become intrigued with the tatami mats I had encountered on our travels in Japan, so I wandered over to check it out. Unfortunately there was no one here actually making the mats, but nevertheless it was interesting to see the weaving frames and tools used for this process.
Tatami in the making
Tatami is the traditional Japanese floor covering and its distinctive appearance, texture and scent will linger long in my memories of the country. The scent in particular, because when you sleep in a tatami room you do so on futons, lying very close to the floor and fall asleep with that straw smell as a perfumed ‘lullaby’.
Tatami is still used a lot in Japan, and not only in traditional houses, as many modern homes and flats have at least one tatami-floored traditional room. The tatami mats are always made in standard sizes, which varies a bit with the region, but is usually around 1.80 metres long by 90 centimetres wide, and always with a ratio of 2:1. Because of this, rooms in Japan are also made in standard sizes and are measured and described as multiples of tatami mats (for example, a tea room is often 4½ mats and a shop usually 5½ mats).
Tools of the tatami-making trade
Traditional tatami mats are made with an inner core of rice straw and a covering of woven rushes, bound at the edges with decorative cloth or brocade. The covering is known as the tatami omote; it is made of a soft reed and each mat needs about 4,000 to 5,000 rushes, which are woven together with hemp or cotton string. To make the tatami goto, as the straw core is known, 40 centimetres of straw is crushed to just five centimetres deep. Finally the edging or tatami beri is bound over the long edges.
There are some rules (this is Japan, there are always rules!) about the most auspicious arrangement for tatami mats. You will never see a room with tatami arranged in a simple grid pattern; the borders should not create a cross shape, because that would mean that you had joined four mats in that spot and the number four is considered unlucky in Japan because it is pronounced like the word used for death: shi. It is also considered unlucky to step on the cloth-bound border of a tatami mat, although avoiding them is easier said than done and I’m sure I stepped on many during our stay!
We strolled along the nearby streets some more and found ourselves back near the small gallery we had visited the previous day. Somehow we found ourselves popping back in for another look at that limited edition woodblock print, and before we knew it, we had bought it! We took the risk of buying it framed as the price was reasonable compared with what we would have paid to have it framed back home and, luckily, we liked the simple frame. The picture, by an artist called Ken Mozumi, cost us 13,700¥ or about £80 ($130) which for such a lovely and relatively unique souvenir seemed well worth paying. It is now hanging in our hall to be admired daily and remind us of our holiday.
In the gallery
After buying this this we headed back to the hotel with our purchase, to freshen up for dinner.
Chris and I had both loved the Hida beef that Andrew had introduced us to on the previous evening, so we decided to try one of the other restaurants he recommended here in Takayama, a place known as Center4 Hamburgers. It sounded like a great place to get a change from Japanese food while still making the most of the high quality local ingredients.
The restaurant is run by a local couple who are clearly enamoured of all things American, as the burgers are served to a background of Johnny Cash music and many of the antiques that spill into the restaurant from the shop in front of it are from the US (though many others are from countries all over the world, as well as from Japan itself). There are just a handful of tables but on the week night we visited there was never more than one other table occupied – surprising perhaps when you consider its reputation.
In Center4 Hamburgers
Antiques spill into the restaurant
My Hida beef burger
Less surprising is the menu, which is dominated by burgers, though there are a few other options. The Hida beef burger comes unadorned, as is only right given the quality of the meat, but you can also get burgers made with regular beef and with all the usual toppings such as cheese, bacon, chilli, egg. You pay considerably more for the Hida beef burger of course, though that does include fries and a tasty salsa. I know the salsa is tasty because I chose to splash out on that dish, and I was so pleased I did – it was amazing, and well worth the extra cost. Chris wanted blue cheese on his burger however so opted for the regular beef, but that too was pretty great. We accompanied our burgers with a large draft beer each (Kirin Ichiban) and had a second beer each afterwards as we were enjoying the atmosphere too much to want to hurry away.
We left eventually of course, and had a pleasant walk back through Takayama’s quiet night time streets, stopping off at the convenience store next to the hotel for some sake to enjoy as a night cap in our room, as the hotel’s bar seemed to be permanently closed. A very nice way to end what had been far too brief a stay in this charming town.